Actually, fighter sponsorships are the UFC's problem


After Thursday's UFC 170 pre-fight press conference, UFC President Dana White held his usual media scrum to answer questions about everything in play in modern MMA. White was asked about a number of topics including fighter pay, fighter sponsorship, recent comments by the retired Nate Quarry and more. Most notably, Yahoo's Kevin Iole asked White about finding a more equitable financial arrangement for fighters competing on Fight Pass cards, where exposure is hugely limited relative to a Fox Sports 1 or pay-per-view event, who are losing sponsors due to decreased visibility.

White's response was unequivocal: it's not my or the UFC's problem.

"It's not my f--- problem," White told Iole and the media. "Getting sponsorship is a problem. It's tough. It's hard to do. That question is ridiculous. If a guy fights on Fight Pass, first of all, he's getting paid to fight. That's what he's getting paid for. That's what he does. How sponsorship works out for a guy is not my problem. That is not my problem. He's a fighter, he gets paid to fight, period, end of story. Whatever extra money he makes outside of the UFC with sponsors and all that s---, that's his f--- deal."

Aside from White's response being a rather cruel dismissal, he's also wrong. Fighter sponsorships actually are the UFC's problem precisely because their direct, conscious decisions about the role sponsors play dramatically influences the market. In addition, the UFC also situates themselves to profit from it, in some cases arguably at the expense of fighters.

White suggests the issue of sponsorships is what happens 'outside of the UFC', as if this is a secondary market the UFC has neither the time nor the inclination to monitor or involve themselves. He positions it as a distant place where fighters and sponsors team up for mutual benefit and he's being asked to solve their problems, problems unrelated to the core of UFC operations.

Yet, those relationships are defined by policies set in place by UFC. Whether it be the invocation of a morality clause or financial hurdle, e.g. the $100,000 sponsor tax, the UFC defines the terms by which sponsors may even approach their athletes (technically independent contractors). The sponsorship of UFC fighters is not an activity that takes place outside of the UFC; it happens through them and under the terms they created. The UFC retains the final word on which sponsors will be allowed to participate and what the complexion of that sponsorship will look like.

Those policies raise the question of their equitability. Is it fair to price out so many eager sponsors with an onerous tax? Is it right to prevent fighters from obtaining a willing sponsor if a UFC brand sponsor operates in a similar space? Those are the questions the MMA community is poring over, but the idea fighter sponsorship is a troubled transactional affair taking place 'outside of the UFC' is demonstrably false. The UFC plays a role in attracting sponsors to the market, removing them and dictating how they operate within the confines of UFC sanctioning.

Second, UFC profits from these rules. Literally. It is impossible to say 'we aren't responsible for this' when the organization is essentially collecting a tax from prospective interest in fighter sponsorship. Note, this isn't a judgment about whether the UFC has the right to do this or if this is a best practice, but rather, whether they can claim they are absolved from responsibility for the state of sponsorships. Fees, taxes and other regulatory hurdles affect human behavior, motivations and decisions. The ask of $100,000 to clear the sponsorship barrier to entry is within the UFC's rights, but it also directly ties them to the health of the very market their rules are profoundly affecting.

Lastly, White's argument assumes tacit consent from fighters for larger efforts the UFC enacts whether or not fighters perceive those decisions to be in their interest. For fighters on Fight Pass cards who receive push back from sponsors leery about their return on investment, White's argument is that essentially their concerns can't be taken seriously because doing so would impede on UFC's operations.

"So what?", White said in response to being questioned about fighters reportedly losing sponsors when competing on Fight Pass cards. "We shouldn't do Fight Pass? So, should we never f--king try new things? It's ridiculous. It's stupid."

Whether or not UFC should or shouldn't do Fight Pass isn't necessarily in question here, but rather, if the insouciance about financial penalties fighters face operating in the space is warranted. Fight Pass cards do feature some marquee talent, but more routinely use fighters at the lower end of the UFC pay scale. Those athletes traditionally offset their modest pay with sponsors, to the extent possible, anyway. That critical cushion now appears to be in jeopardy for some of the competing fighters. That's a perfectly legitimate concern that rates a real response.

More importantly, though, is the issue of acknowledging collective fighter consent. If the UFC wishes to do Fight Pass cards, well, UFC believes the fighters should want that, too. After all, UFC needs their participation to make the burgeoning venture work. Does it necessarily favor fighter interests as they see them? To some extent, of course, but problems are reportedly emerging. White is suggesting these issues are inconsequential because they'd inhibit the ability of the UFC to launch forward with the program. Consent is therefore assumed and everything moves forward because everything needs to move forward.

The discussion over what fighter sponsorship will and should look like going forward is going to continue. It's important to note, however, that it can't take place without understanding the UFC's chief role in defining the complexion and health of the market. For as much as the UFC may wish to distance themselves from the troubled state of fighter sponsorship, the reality is there is no conversation that takes place without understanding and acknowledging their preeminent role. They are a top driving force as a magnet for prospective interest and as a de facto regulator of the space.

So, yes, fighter sponsorship is the UFC's problem. Fighters can't fix it without them.

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